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New website tracks stops by Boston school buses

The new system should benefit time-pinched families.

PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF

The new system should benefit time-pinched families.

It is a never-ending question each morning from John St. Amand’s 10-year-old daughter: Where is the school bus? In past years, St. Amand, of West Roxbury, would simply say he didn’t know or call a family ahead of them on the route for a status check.

But now St. Amand can pull out his Android phone and call up a Boston public school website where he can find the exact location of the bus, allowing him to estimate its arrival time.

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The site, tested last year with a few hundred families like the St. Amands, will officially go live this school year for families across Boston. The information will be available to any family of the more than 33,000 children who ride a Boston public school bus, regardless of whether it is bound for a city-run school, an independent charter school, or a private school. Most Boston public schools open Sept. 4.

“It does provide a peace of mind for families,” St. Amand said. “It kills the anxiety of not knowing where the bus is.”

Boston is among a growing number of school districts nationwide that are enabling parents to track the whereabouts of their children’s buses. Some are more high-tech than others. Under a system Denver is launching this fall, children will scan a student identification card when they board the bus, and that information along with the bus-tracking program will be available to parents on the School Department’s website.

While school districts have largely been behind the push, parents have also helped bring about changes. In Westport, Conn., a couple of parents developed a bus locator app that has been garnering attention.

The information is expected to be a boon for time-strapped families — letting them know whether children need to be sent out to the bus stop on time or if they might have the luxury of a few additional minutes inside on a frigid winter morning.

At the end of the day, parents who often must race from work to pick up their children can find out if they have already arrived at the stop or, if they have not, how late the bus might be. No longer will an extremely late bus set off panic in a parent’s mind that their child may have gotten off at the wrong stop or that something more dreadful may have happened.

Boston school officials said that last year’s test of its bus locator system was largely a success, although a few kinks had to be worked out, such as making sure information was up-to-date when a student’s bus number changed.

“We need to put this information in the hands of parents,” said Carl Allen, the School Department’s transportation director. “A lot of the calls we receive in the call center are parents wanting to know where the school buses are — whether it’s been at the stop or if it’s around the corner. A lot of time they are satisfied knowing the information.”

Boston has been kicking around the idea of creating a bus-tracking program since a snow storm several years ago paralyzed the city and much of Greater Boston, causing hours of traffic delays and extremely late school buses.

The idea gained momentum during the 2010-11 school year after the School Department switched to a new software program that in many cases grossly underestimated the time between stops, resulting in late buses. Frustrated parents bombarded the School Department with phone calls and e-mails.

Late school buses became an even bigger problem the following school year before the School Department enacted a series of changes that officials say now have at least 90 percent of buses arriving at school on time.

To use the bus-tracking program, parents call up the website schoolbus.bostonpublicschools.org, and enter their last name and their child’s date of birth and student identification number. The site will then provide the location of the child’s bus on a Google map as well as where it has been for the last two minutes.

The website, however, does not project what time the bus will arrive at the child’s stop. That’s because the GPS system tracks only where the bus is and where it has been and cannot anticipate unexpected delays .

“You have to infer the arrival time,” Allen said.

The bus tracking program was developed by Code for America in conjunction with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and later refined by Vermonster.

St. Amand, the West Roxbury father whose daughter attends a school in Brighton, said the service has given him a good sense of when the bus would arrive. During the last school year, he said, he knew whenever the bus left the Beethoven School in West Roxbury, where it did a previous run, that it most likely would show up soon.

“On a normal day, it’s about 15 minutes away,” said St. Amand, who also is vice chairman of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council, which will be encouraging parents to use the Web program.

Bob Goodman, an Allston father who tested the bus tracking program last school year, said he typically checked the progress of his 8-year-old son’s bus if it was running late. Other times, he said, his son, who has become fascinated with the program, asked him to check.

“It’s kind of fun to watch the bus,” said Goodman, noting “It’s better than having no information or waiting on the phone line to talk with someone in the transportation department.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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